TJ interviews: SSSC's Keith Quinn and George Burton

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Written by Jon Kennard on 3 March 2021 in Interviews
Interviews

Keith Quinn and George Burton from the Scottish Social Servcies Council tell TJ about their new app, MyLearning.

Charities and the public sector often end up becoming testbeds of innovation by accident rather than design. Is this how My Learning came about?

MyLearning is something that has been in gestation for several years. The relationship we have with our learners is interesting in that they are not our employees, but we may have involvement with them over their career across multiple employers.

As there is no requirement from the SSSC for anyone to use our digital learning services and resources, we need to make sure that what we offer the sector is something that the workforce wants to engage with.

We have a stake in understanding what learning is taking place across social services in Scotland, so we wanted to create something that would afford us that intelligence but in a way that wasn’t a hassle for our learners or involve unnecessary duplication.

So working on a principle that 'learning belongs to the learner' we created something that we hope empowers the individual to take control of their learning, the way they record it, and who they share it with. 

Looking at workforce CPD records over a number years showed us that people are quite good at recording that they have engaged in learning (attending a training event, completing a piece of online learning etc.), but they are less good at reflecting on that learning and how it was applied, without being prompted to do so. We knew a smartphone-based service could help with this, and more.

It might be true that some public sector organisations become testbeds for innovation by accident or by necessity to make the most of meagre development budgets. But, in our case, innovation is by design. We listen carefully to the needs and aspirations expressed by staff and employers in the sector and actively seek innovative means of addressing them.

The members of the digital learning team actively engage in horizon scanning and space to experiment is created to allow staff to try new approaches and ideas. The main focus is on removing the friction from the process of learning and making our solutions as easy to use as possible.

We listen carefully to the needs and aspirations expressed by staff and employers in the sector and actively seek innovative means of addressing them.

Given what we know about when and where people learn (i.e. the majority are learning in their own time and on their own devices), we are also very interested in making the most of off-the-shelf and non-learning tech for learning.

You’ve had interest from a number of employers and other stakeholders - what do you think they saw in the platform that they couldn’t develop themselves or obtain from tech vendors?

A key requirement for us when designing MyLearning was that the user should be able to use it in conjunction with other systems they are already required to use by an employer, college or university. It must be easy to put information in, but equally, it must be simple for the learner to export evidence of their learning in a format that works for them. 

Version 1 of the service allows for PDF exports, but we’re working right now with employers using systems such as LearnPro and Moodle so that we can make it even easier for people to share their learning.  A benefit for employers is that they will start to get insights into what their learners are engaging with outwith their own LMS. 

To make this work, using Open Standards is important - we didn’t want to build yet another proprietary system. Every time someone does something with MyLearning, xAPI statements are generated and are collected in our Learning Record Store.

With the express consent of the learner, these statements can be forwarded to another LRS. If things go well and people use MyLearning as we hope they will, learners will start expecting that the systems their employers use work smoothly with MyLearning, rather than the other way around.

One of the big considerations for public sector employers is cost. The vast majority of solutions offered by tech vendors come with substantial cost implications which can push their offering out of the price range of many employers.

 

There are around 2,500 employers in the social service sector in Scotland and the majority of them are small- to medium-sized organisations and financial resources are stretched. So, even modest individual learner licence fees can rapidly push their resources to the limit.

Our offering, on the other hand, is free to use. Development work is funded by public money and we look to keep maintenance and updating within reasonable cost – there’s a lot more to this, but that feels like a whole other discussion.

Of course, it’s not just about cost. Too many vendors are keen to push their own off-the-shelf service which may not have the flexibility to match the needs of some employers, and sadly many vendors are still stuck in the LMS/SCORM world – basically pushing outdated technology.

The big consideration here is that we need solutions that don’t require an always-on internet connection to the LMS, so xAPI and associated tech is best suited to our sector’s needs as for the majority of staff, an always-on connection is simply not available.

In the majority of the commercial offerings, there also seems to be a lack of willingness or appetite to explore workplace learning/situated learning which feature prominently in our sector which has a focus on practice learning and workplace assessment.

Finally, many vendors appear to still be locked into a 'courses' rather than 'resources' approach. The Bersin-Deloitte research a year or so ago made it clear that the staff time available for learning, across sectors, was averaging at around 24 minutes a week – learning solutions need to fit around that reality. In all that we offer, we try to take that into account at the learning design stage.

Are there any plans to expand the offering beyond social services employees?

MyLearning is already available to anyone. You don’t have to be registered with the SSSC or work in social services to use it. In the Digital Learning Team, we’ve always committed to making our resources as open and accessible as possible, recognising that a significant amount of the care work that happens in the country is carried out by people outside the formal, paid workforce. 

We’ve already seen a good uptake from workers in health and education. Other regulators in Scotland and across the UK have been in touch and are discussing how they might build their own version, or piggy-back onto ours to avoid reinventing the wheel.

After the success of your adoption of Open Badges and now MyLearning, what’s your next innovation or will it be based on a future need as yet undefined?

We have plans to increase the functionality and reach of MyLearning over the next few years. We will be working on deeper integrations with a wide of range of APIs that are already out there on the platforms people are already familiar with such as Eventbrite. 

In addition to our plans for MyLearning, we are actively looking at how we can exploit XR (Extended Reality) for immersive learning in certain areas which are very difficult to provide due to ethical or legal constraints (eg VR for Child protection training & mental health training for social work students) and augmented reality solutions for performance support/on-the-job training. 

We are also keen to explore increase use of interactive video and ShortSims as more engaging way of delivering compliance learning.

We’re planning to retrospectively xAPI-enable all our existing learning resources. Because we took a conscious decision years ago not to host our resources within an LMS, we’ve always evaluated their impact through Open Badges. By using xAPI alongside Open Badges our learning analytics will improve significantly. 

There’s so much you can do, it’s about whittling it down to what we should do - what will benefit the learner?

 

About the interviewees

Keith Quinn is L&D manager (digital learning) and George Burton is L&D adviser at the Scottish Social Services Council.

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